Whenever sophomore Shea Sprague takes to the mound, the Elon University baseball team expects a dominant performance. That is exactly what the Phoenix got from its ace pitcher on Friday against the University of Akron Zips, as the lefty threw six scoreless frames in a 9-1 win.
Sprague has pitched 12 scoreless innings in two starts this season, allowing just eight total hits against the University of Kentucky and Akron. Head coach Mike Kennedy said Sprague could be in for a special season.
“If he ever gets banged around, we’re all going to be in shock,” Kennedy said. “If we do anything at all offensively, we feel like we’ve got a good chance to win when he’s out there.”
The reigning Colonial Athletic Association Co-Pitcher of the Week pitched successfully to contact throughout the game, drawing eight fly outs and four ground outs in 21 at-bats. The sophomore added five strikeouts in his 82-pitch outing.
Sprague allowed just two baserunners in his first five innings before overcoming a pair of Akron singles in the sixth to keep his clean sheet intact.
“I felt great. I was attacking all the hitters and getting a bunch of outs early in counts, early in innings, which was nice,” Sprague said.
Elon’s bats came to life to compliment Sprague’s strong performance, as the Phoenix tallied 11 hits and posted a season-high nine runs. Sprague said the team’s offensive outburst inspired him on the mound.
“Nothing fires you up more on the bench when you chuck up a zero and punch them back,” Sprague said.
Junior first baseman Cole Reynolds broke a scoreless tie in the bottom of the second inning with an RBI groundout, and freshman third baseman Ryan Sprock delivered an RBI single in the bottom of the third to put Elon ahead 2-0.
The Phoenix broke the game open in the bottom of the fourth, tallying five runs on five hits. Sophomore left fielder Charlie Granatell got the scoring started with a two-RBI double down the left field line, his second of three hits on the night, to make it 4-0. After a walk by sophomore right fielder Kenny Mallory Jr. and a foul out by Sprock, graduate student catcher Luke Stephenson stepped up to the plate.
After hitting a team-high 15 home runs a season ago, Stephenson was a pre-season all-conference selection. However, Stephenson entered the night hitting just 1-12. Having already hit a single in the second inning, he said he made an adjustment prior to his second at-bat of the game.
“Kennedy told me I was moving a lot with my lower half, so I tried to quiet myself down and see the ball better,” Stephenson said. “I got a hanging slider on the first pitch and swung.”
The ball soared off Stephenson’s bat and over the fence in left field for his first home run of the season, giving the Phoenix a 7-0 advantage. Stephenson credited his coach for helping him make the adjustment to his swing.
“That was from Kennedy getting on me for moving too much in the box,” Stephenson said.
In addition to hitting the home run in the fourth inning, Stephenson caught all six of Sprague’s innings behind the plate. Stephenson said Sprague sets a positive tone for the team when he is on the mound.
“He’s got a lot of pitches working for him right now,” Stephenson said. “When he’s doing that, guys feed off it.”
Elon’s final two runs of the game came off the bat of junior designated hitter Connor Offshack, who blasted a home run in the bottom of the fifth. This was Offshack’s first start of the season.
“He had a great day, he barreled three or four balls and had good at-bats,” Kennedy said. “It’s good to get the barrel to some baseballs and do some damage, we talk about that all the time.”
The Phoenix went to its bullpen for the final three innings. Redshirt freshman Itai Spinoza, junior Ethan Haislip and freshman Sam Nomura secured the game’s final nine outs and only allowed one run, which was unearned off a throwing error.
Making his first college appearance, Nomura retired the Zips in order to close out the ninth inning. Sprague said he was impressed by the freshman’s debut.
“It was really good to see him come out here in his first outing and close it down,” Sprague said. “It was fun to watch.”
Despite racking up a season-best 11 hits, Elon left seven runners on base, something Kennedy said he wants the Phoenix to improve on in upcoming games.
“We had some big swings but we left a lot of opportunities on the field,” Kennedy said. “When you score nine, you’d think you’d be happy, but we had some tough at-bats from the middle of the lineup.”
Elon will face the Zips again each of the next two days to close out the three-game series.